Intersections: Missing multiculturalism in Armenia

Long before wars, closed borders and power struggles turned Armenia and Azerbaijan into mortal enemies and carved out an almost exclusively mono-ethnic population in both countries, they each had sizable, ethnically diverse populations living and working together.

A 1970s travel guide from Russian travel agency Intourist even calls the Caucasus the most multinational area of the Soviet Union where “people of more than 50 nationalities,” including Armenians and Azeris, “live and work there as a closely knit family.”

While Armenia has seen a rise in tourism — with Italian, French and German tourists feeling adventurous enough to charter the mountainous country full of ancient monasteries and historical sites and Peace Corps volunteers that are placed in unsuspecting cities around the country — Armenia remains largely, well, Armenian.

For this culture-loving Los Angeles native, with roots in Iran and Greece and an affinity for Bollywood films, Mexican art and Pad Thai, the mono-ethnicism of the country has been a difficult concept to deal with.

As the weeks in Armenia have passed by in rapid succession, with the unforgiving sun beating down during the day, while a flurry of cooling thunderstorms have emerged in the evening, I am forever craving diversity, the ability for ethnic groups to coexist peacefully in this region, without the threat of war, nationalism or prejudice — for the ability to realize that having an affinity for other cultures doesn't negate the importance or meaning of your own.

It was with this yearning for the diversity that Los Angeles affords, with a bevy of faces and cultures intermingling together at any given time that I took a trip to Tbilisi, Georgia, a city which turned out to be an example of what this entire region, fraught with closed borders, propaganda machines and nationalist rhetoric should be.

In Tbilisi, a city of astounding historic architecture and multiculturalism, Armenians, Georgians and Azeris call each other brothers. They do business together, toast together and spend afternoons selling enough paraphernalia at Tbilisi's swap meet — the Dry Bridge Market — to enchant any Soviet-era sympathizer.

Sergei, an Armenian seller flanked by huge portraits of Stalin and 19th-century Armenian couples from Tbilisi, said the friction between Armenians and Azeris is purely political.

“There are crazy people in every ethnicity, but we have no problems here,” he said.

Further down, another seller, upon finding out I was Armenian, joyfully told me his mother was Azeri and father Armenian. In an Azeri tea house run by an Armenian family, an Azeri customer speaks fluent Armenian. Locals that I seemed to spontaneously run into made it a point to tell me the so-called “ethnic conflicts” were all down to government decisions and had nothing to do with ordinary people.

With awe, I left Tbilisi and returned to Yerevan on a minibus, realizing how important diversity, whether it be ethnic or otherwise, was to my daily life and how stifling and claustrophobic its non-existence in Yerevan was.

This region (and its history) is a complicated one, full of mourning and tragedy, but it's also a cradle of civilization and immense culture.

And while my few days worth of conversation simplifies eons worth of questions, concerns and situations, it was a glimmer of hope, however small, that peaceful coexistence and the multicultural richness that follows aren’t as elusive as they seem.

LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a writer and editor who has been covering arts, culture and news in print and online for a number of years.

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